Bangkok was recently voted the world’s most popular city – and not for the first time. The capital of Thailand since 1782, it’s a frenetic metropolis where skyscrapers co-exist alongside Buddhist temples, gleaming shopping malls vie for the consumer dollar against traditional markets, and an after dark nightlife that could be described as “infamous” never overshadows superb restaurants and chic cocktail bars to match any you’ll find in London, Paris or New York
Bangkok is a great base from which to explore Thailand as well as the neighbouring countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. In addition, if you’re heading down-under the Thai capital makes a perfect stopover. It can appear full-on to the first-time visitor but the city is actually pretty easy to navigate and is an exciting place in which to spend a few days.
Who’s It For?
The city will appeal to anyone who enjoys seeing the ancient and modern collide. Stunning temples and museums, superb shopping and fine dining will top most visitor lists but it’s worth exploring some of its more hidden treasures. If time allows take a day trip to explore sites associated with the Second World War such as the River Kwai and “Death Railway” built by thousands of allied prisoners held captive by the Japanese. And despite its brash exterior, Bangkok is surprisingly family friendly.
Bangkok is a sprawling city and a decade ago traffic was horrendous. Things have improved with the arrival of the excellent Skytrain that is clean, reliable, inexpensive and connects many key locations, and also the Metro. Metered taxis are plentiful, while for something a bit more authentic a short journey on one of the city’s trademark tuk-tuks is fun. Most tourists stay in the Sukhumvit Road area or along the Chao Phraya River. Where you see the word soi in an address it signifies a small road or lane off a main road.
On the Water
More modern forms of transport may now take centre stage in Bangkok but the Chao Phraya River remains a bustling artery much as it has for centuries. It’s also the best way to get you to some of the most iconic sites including Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. The tourist boat (www.chaophrayaexpressboat.com) costs THB150 (£3) for an unlimited day ticket.
From cheap backpacker digs to a hotel consistently voted best in the world, Bangkok has accommodation to suit all. For centrally-located luxury that won’t bust the budget try the stylish Muse Hotel (www.hotelmusebangkok.com); for excellent tourist class options check out Dream (www.dreambkk.com) and Bel-Aire Princess (www.belairebangkok.com) and, if money’s no object, you may choose to rest your head at the iconic Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com).
Out to Dinner
There’s hardly a week goes by when critics aren’t welcoming the arrival of some swish new Bangkok eaterie. It’s hard to make specific recommendations (one of my favourites is Basil – www.basilbangkok.com) so pick up a copy of the latest Bangkok 101 (think Time Out) or check out the excellent Nancy Chandler website (www.nancychandler.net) as well as its fun and colourful maps and guides.
Jim Thompson – Life and Legend
Jim Thompson is credited with revitalising and indeed saving the Thai silk industry. He mysteriously disappeared in 1967 but his name is inextricably linked with what we appreciate today as its intricate, lush designs and vibrant colours. Jim Thompson House (www.jimthompsonhouse.com) consists of six traditional Thai-style teak-built homes brought from various parts of the kingdom. Set in beautiful grounds and offering a charming oasis, the museum tells the story of the man known as the “legendary American of Thailand”.
Palaces and Mansions
Bangkok’s Grand Palace is the city’s defining landmark and was home to Thai royalty until 1946. The grandeur is genuinely jaw-dropping with pristine gardens, towering spires, coronation hall, the magnificent Chakri Mahaprasad, and enough embedded jewels to impressive even the most cynical tourist. Tickets to the Grand Palace also include admission to Vimanmek (www.vimanmek.com), the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion.
What’s in a Wat?
Wat Arun and Wat Pho are two of Bangkok’s most noted temples. The former, which is also known as the Temple of Dawn, towers over the Chao Phraya River and with its colourfully decorated spires is one of the city’s most impressive sites as well as being a rare example in Thailand of Khmer architecture. Wat Pho, which is easily combined with a visit to the Grand Palace, is a beautiful temple compound and home to the giant and stunning Reclining Buddha (151ft long and 49ft high).
On Your Bike
Few cities seem to change at such a pace as Bangkok and the truth is many of its more authentic corners can be tucked away, so how about joining a guided bike trip? One of the city’s longest established operators (www.realasia.net) offers tours led by English-speaking locals at a relaxed pace.
For the Foodie
With its blend of sweet, sour, spicy and salty and its use of exotic fresh ingredients, Thai food is one of the world’s great cuisines so how about a cookery course? There are several in the city including the Silom Thai Cooking School (www.bangkokthaicooking.com) and Bangkok Bai Pai Cooking School (www.baipai.com). Most offer half and full-day courses or more intensive programmes if you have the time.
Bangkok can be exhausting so why not treat yourself? Few cities do spa culture as well or more affordably and the best advice is to ask your hotel for a recommendation. If you’re staying around the Sukhumvit Road area then Spa 1930 (www.spa1930.com) is a delight. Set in a traditional Thai house and tucked away up a quiet soi, the range of treatments is extensive. They’ll even create one to tackle your jet lag.
Did You Know? Bangkok’s full ceremonial name runs to a Twitter-destroying 169 characters. Go Google!